Cervantes Foreshadows Freud: On Don Quixote's Flight from the Feminine and the Physical8
University of California, Riverside
Françoise Meltzer cautions in a recent essay that it is a
misuse of the medium to read texts as symptoms of authors' psychological states
(153) and, more to the point, she suggests that psychoanalyzing fictional
characters is a
«particularly useless undertaking»
(154). My own
caveat that fictional personages are not real
persons, and cannot be analyzed as such, is a matter of record, as is the
complementary stricture about
speculation» passing for literary criticism (Anatomy 85-86). Is there a methodologically
respectable way out of this apparent impasse -an approach that would allow us
to draw productively upon the insights of psychology in studying authors,
characters, and texts, without being overly speculative? If we take to heart
Freud's modest disclaimer that the poets and philosophers preceding him were
the real discoverers of the unconscious (Brown 62, 311), then it may not be
amiss to read them
accordingly. That is to say, the poet presents
a symbolic action that we may decipher in terms of insights that came to be
systematized much later, by Freud and others. Now it would be beyond my
competence to psychoanalyze the author, or the main character, or the reader,
even if I chose to do so, for I am not one of those privileged souls like
Norman Holland or Ruth El Saffar, whose postgraduate training in both criticism
and psychology sets them apart. I notice that some postmodern critics take all
knowledge as their purview, but I wonder whether this Smörgasbord School
of Newer Criticism, although admittedly exhilarating, may not lead its
followers astray, prompting them to speak with authority about such diverse
matters that they are ultimately taken seriously in none. This propensity for
dabbling in psychology, anthropology, sociology, political theory, chaos
theory, etc., can enrich our reading and understanding of texts, although one
may come away with an impression that the critic is avoiding literature per se
in favor of forays into other areas of greater interest. I will not go quite as
far as Harold Bloom in calling this the School of Resentment, but his notion of
«flight from the aesthetic» (17) is
provocative indeed, and it juxtaposes nicely with the flight from the feminine
and the physical to be discussed shortly. Another observation is that we tend
to go to one of two extremes: either we become highly proficient in one key
figure (e. g., Freud, Jung, Lacan, to mention only psychological approaches)
and we repeat a certain approach in study after study, until we begin to parody
ourselves, or we cast our net so wide, bringing in Derrida, Bakhtin, Kristeva,
Said, Genette, Greimas, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss et al., that the net
threatens to break with the weight of our wide, but necessarily superficial,
reading. I am one of those who is guilty the second «excess», so
this is, in a sense, a
mea culpa. There must be a middle
aurea mediocritas, that would be
preferable to either extreme, and that is what I would propose to seek now and
in the future. The question remains: What can we realistically do with classic
texts like the
Quijote in terms of psychological approaches?
At a minimum, we can seek out glimmers of insight into human nature latent in
that text, insights of the sort that are later systematized and consolidated
into theories of culture and the individual psyche's formation by and relation
to its environment, adumbrated by Freud in particular and elaborated, in this
instance, by Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse. The notion that the
development of the individual
(ontogeny) recapitulates the
development of the race (phylogeny) might be such a consideration.
With the preceding as a guiding principle -that is, looking back
in order to look forward, while attempting, as Malcolm Read puts it, to
«explore a textual unconscious» (VII)- it
should be possible to eschew Meltzer's «useless undertaking», while
at the same time recognizing, with Freud, that poets in all times and places
have demonstrated intuitive but profound insights into the human condition.
Having read selectively in the Collected Papers, it strikes me that Freud is much more engaging and suggestive when he abandons the couch for culture, that is, when his analysis becomes collective rather than individual, leading him to grapple with Western illusions and delusions on a grand scale, as in Moses and Monotheism, Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and, for present purposes, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I propose to draw upon the last of these collective delusions to see whether it applies to one particular fictional hidalgo.
So it is Freud the amateur philosopher and adventuresome culture
critic who interests me here primarily, and my focus will be on his paradoxical
insight that life-affirming desire, sometimes referred to as the pleasure
principle, has its downside, or dark side, or backside, for it seems to lead
inexorably beyond itself, beyond desire, or even self-realization, and to
culminate in disintegration and death. Some preliminary evidence in support of
Freud's perspective derives from the attention paid by Cervantes to Mikhail
«material bodily lower stratum» (Rabelais, ch. 6). The excremental vision occasionally
encountered -along with a much more diffuse emphasis on anality and sadism-
calls attention to the backside of reality, thus complementing the
ill-conceived quest, while foreshadowing the end in more ways than one.
While Alonso Quixano has no documented childhood, he can be seen as the child of his naive reading of romance: he is born, nurtured, guided, and set on his way by books. Indeed, he is not weaned from them until the very end. The Logos he has figuratively devoured becomes his substitute father, the reading his mother -and the dramatized author's distancing of himself in the 1605 Prologue (his claim to be only the stepfather of the character) can thus be seen in a new context. In a very real, yet symbolic, sense we are given a vida in its entirety, from birth to death, from inspiration to expiration. Don Quixote's formation, and realization, are firmly fixed in fiction itself.
When his brain overheats and dries up -when obsessional neurosis takes over, in today's terms- he will continue to sublimate —19→ (and repress) in conformity with the demands of society, as Efron has shown, but there is decidedly a transformation, and the emblem of that reconfiguration is surely Dulcinea. Through this parody of the belle dame sans merci (see Close), with its corollaries of courtly service and suffering and of the woman distanced and unattainable -figuratively on a pedestal- we witness a transfiguring of sexuality into a more diffuse and abstract Eros, a withdrawal from the social in order to pursue a private agenda, and the obvious flight from reality.
Repressed sexuality finds its symbolic expression in the antics of Rocinante, when he feels the urge to dally with the Yangüesan mares in I.15, with fairly predictable consequences. In some of his earlier writings, Freud compared the relation of the ego to the id to that of a rider to his horse, a metaphor that harks back to Plato's Phaedrus. When the rider fails to control his steed, as in this misadventure, the situation is tantamount to the unconscious pleasure principle erupting into consciousness, much to the chagrin of the reality principle and its manifestation in the ego.
Another suggestive anticipation of Freud can be found in the
«repression weighs more heavily on anality than on
genitality» (Brown 180). Our mock hero is quick to
-ano of his last name in favor of a slightly
more savory suffix, the equally witty but also pejorative
-ote (see Baras). This could be construed as
an attempt to put anality behind him, so to speak. The
quixote is the piece of armor that protects
the thigh, thus serving to shift the focus from back to front, from the anal to
the genital, since the thigh is more closely associated with the genital area
The character's disdain for money is likewise significant in terms of anality, if we assume the synomymity of filthy lucre and feces (ch. on «Filthy Lucre» in Brown). It is again a question of repressing that stage of sexual development within the id. Another instance of lower body features and functions intruding upon the idealized world in which the character has taken refuge would be Sancho's failure to show proper respect when Nature calls during the fulling-mills episode (I. 20).
The flight from the physical, exemplified in the transformation
of the malodorous Aldonza into the disembodied Dulcinea, can be seen upon
further consideration to be a flight not just from the prosaic but from the
bottom side of the prosaic, from all that is remindful of the an(im)al nature
we have in common. It is a matter of keeping dirt out of the dream. Recognition
and acceptance of that animal nature, symbolized in the antics of Rocinante and
excremental vision of the fulling-mills episode, would, of
course, negate and render untenable the illusory world within which the quest
for a fantastical ideal takes place. As Jonathan Swift put it starkly in a late
«Nor wonder how I lost my Wits; / Oh!
Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits».
The celestial beauty the poetic voice has admired -no doubt from a distance-
displays, up close, bodily functions of the grossest kind! What a precipitous
descent, from deification to defecation! Enough to drive a man mad, surely,
whether he be of Platonic or courtly persuasion!
What I am proposing is an alternative to Carroll Johnson's provocative Freudian reading of 1983, reiterated in 1990, centering on Sobrina and incest avoidance9. While I find that interpretation difficult to document by reference to Cervantes's text, my alternative does find textual support, and I submit that it captures the relations of the main character vis-à-vis the feminine throughout the work. He is shown to be consistently in flight from any unpoetic aspects of the female body, even to the extent of transforming the unappetizing Maritornes into a dainty, decorous damsel -prompted always, throughout Part I, by his idle reading.
In my estimation, his flight into fantasy does not center around an individual. It relates, rather, to the backside of reality (that is, unidealized reality, a physical corollary of the more metaphysical iron age), and, more specifically, to the material bodily lower stratum of the feminine, which also must be transformed (Aldonza> Dulcinea>Maritornes > chatelain's daughter) in conformity with a pattern of similar metamorphoses. Significantly, it is in a dream -the Cave of Montesinos episode- when subversive «reality» intrudes in the guise of Sancho's enchanted Dulcinea. Of primary interest here is the fact that this degraded Dulcinea asks for money -within Don Quixote's reported dream, of course- thus insinuating again the relationship between filthy lucre and feces, or, in other words, between money and the material bodily lower stratum (Bakhtin's term). Her maid leaps several feet into the air and runs off. This absurd touch serves to emphasize further the importance, within the textual scheme of things, of those parts of the body situated below the waist. That this request for the loan of a half-dozen reales should occur —21→ within a dream, along with the associations it conjures up in the mind of a reader acquainted with Freud, Bakhtin, and Norman O. Brown, is surely consequential for our understanding of the «exchange» today. Gerald Brenan's early venture into psychoanalytical waters (originally in 1951) remains one of the more insightful commentaries on this episode. Brenan mentions, for instance, the possibility that a kind of subversive fifth column lives on in the mind of the prosaic Alonso Quijano, ready to sabotage the fantasy world of imagination at any opportunity, as we can in fact see it doing here (190).
In Don Quixote we have a fictional personage who pre-figures
poetically -even as he strives valiantly to deny both his and his beloved's
bodies- an anal-sadistic stage of arrested development. Norman O. Brown asserts
«obsessional commitment to transform passivity into activity
is aggressiveness» (117). The assive Alonso Quijano
becomes the active Don Quixote, whose aggressiveness toward Sancho and others
is a hallmark of Part I. Someone inclined toward homiletics might remark
parenthetically on the curious conundrum of a book that portrays the dangers of
idealism and utopianism (obsession, aggressivity, avoidance of reality,
subordination of means to ends) having nevertheless inspired a spate of
idealistic readings, which continue to this day (e. g., Martínez
Bonati). It is difficult to explain such a signal failure on the part of a
master narrator to communicate a fairly transparent message to otherwise
According to Freud,
«aggressiveness represents a fusion
of the life instinct with the death instinct» (Brown
101). His final position seems to be that there is a
masochism directed against the self and that sadism [is] an extroversion of
this primary masochism... identified with the death instinct»
(Brown 88) . The characterization of Don Quixote thus anticipates many
features of the sort of tension between life and death instincts that Freud
Beyond the Pleasure Principle. If
«the past continues to claim the future» , as Marcuse
suggests, in that
«it generates the wish that the paradise
[experienced in earlier stages of development] be recreated»
(18), what Cervantes's text figures forth is an attempt to
recapture through fantasy the personal paradise about which we are not told
-but which would need to be assumed if Freud's topographic, hydraulic model is
to play any role in further deliberations- in other words, to return to a state
that prevailed before the reality-principle reared its ugly head. This state of
grace is one in which Eros reigns supreme within the little world of the id,
manifesting itself through a body that is polymorphous-perverse,
prior to the development of the ego or the superego. This ontogenic Eden has
its counterpart, of course, in the phylogenic Golden Age. It is surely no
coincidence that the character's quest for self-realization has as its
counterpart the mission to restore that paradisiacal idyll when Saturn taught
men agriculture and the useful and liberal arts.
But now we come to the disillusioning paradox. It is precisely
this quest to revert to an earlier state, real or conjectured, that anticipates
the complementary desire to return to the
«quiescence of the inorganic
world» (Beyond 108) that is the
driving force behind the death instinct. Elsewhere in
Beyond the Pleasure Principle we find:
As Cervantes presents the paradigm, reading becomes the character's symbolic mother, Dulcinea is a kind of «Phantom» (see Bush) readily associated with both la Lectura and la Muerte, and therefore an intermediary between them, while Death herself becomes the substitute wife. If Reading predominates in Part I, Death comes into her own in Part II. The escape into fantasy could be seen as a regression to childhood, a stage of development repressed by the text. This metaphorical return to a time of innocence and diffuse sexuality finds its complement in the urge to substitute a golden age for the iron age of prosaic reality. The pleasure principle associated with the id asserts itself in both cases. The paradox lies, however, in the fact that desire, pushed to its logical extreme, leads to the dissolution of the individual in the figure of the mother, and of civilization, discontents and all, in a prelapsarian Eden antedating the primal horde. That is to say, the regression leads ultimately to disintegration and, therefore, death.
The individual's progressive regression to an inanimate state -anticipated frequently throughout Part II- finds fulfillment in the final chapter. But the return of society to a pristine Nirvana, or Golden Age, is necessarily left in abeyance, for it is a Utopian fantasy. While ontogeny may in fact mimic phylogeny in their respective developments, it would be less than realistic -an impossible dream- to expect those processes to parallel each other in reverse. The time —23→ differential is decisive. Don Quixote dies blissfully unaware that phylogeny is not undone in a day, or even a fictional lifetime.
Furthermore, and finally, the absence of a childhood -to pursue the analogy between ontogeny and phylogeny a step farther- intimates that there is likewise no idyll to which the race may return -or to which it may aspire, for that matter. This paradoxical variant on the Freudian parallel, this less-than-Utopian perspective encoded in what we might call the unconscious of the text is, nonetheless, suggestively Freudian in its own way, for Freud was no idealist. He had no illusions about the perfectibility of human nature. It would follow from this implicit rejection of both preterite and future idylls that Cervantes's text likewise anticipates, but in order to question avant la lettre, utopian mythography in all its forms. Need one be more explicit?
There is more than a little dramatic irony in the fact that the quest is not what the main character assumes it to be; the apparently life-affirming trajectory is really an escape from the prosaic in all its forms that turns out, over time, to be life-denying. Don Quixote is shown to be directed, in other words, by a force that transcends desire, as it is commonly understood, and that disguised but dominant drive is what Freud, in the fullness of time, will describe as a death instinct. The flight from the physical leads to a compensatory desire for renown; then, inexorably, to disillusionment as the fantasy world inspired by Reading is coopted; while the quest becomes ultimately a search for surcease, available at that juncture only in the cold but comforting arms of Death. «Quixotic desire» can be deceptive because, in the final analysis, it goes beyond the pleasure principle, transmuting itself into a death wish.—24→
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